Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The sad and shocking Smirle Avenue murder

The following is a long narrative on a case that I've come across multiple times in my years of local research. I'd been intending to really dig into it one day, and so here it is. Consider it my first foray into the world of crime writing. It is a really sad case, but one that really captivated Ottawans in 1930, and had several twists and turns that extended over multiple years. Grab a coffee, and learn more about arguably the saddest incident in Wellington Village's history. (DA)

In the winter of 1929-30, Smirle Avenue was still in it's earliest days. The street numbered just 30 houses at the time (20 on the west side, 11 on the east), and all of them were less than a decade old. Wellington Village as a neighbourhood was in its infancy, but it was a booming little community, pushed ahead by the roaring '20s which saw constant construction on its streets throughout the decade. The great depression had begun to settle in during this winter, and times were changing in Ottawa, and throughout the western world.

But on the morning of Tuesday March 25th, 1930, the neighbourhood and indeed the city as a whole would be shook up by an incident that was as upsetting as any event the area had ever seen.

* * *

The background

Donald Lloyd Campbell was a home-builder who operated like many of the builders of the era; he purchased a lot or two at a time, finished a house, put it up for sale, and perhaps even lived in the completed home, until it's purchaser was found. Then the cycle was repeated.

Campbell had established a small business, D.L. Campbell Ltd., and in the late 1920s had purchased quite a few lots in the Wellington Village area, and subsequently built several houses. One of these lots was lot #697 on the west side of Smirle, at the south corner of Spencer Street. He picked it up for $200 in January of 1928, and acquired a mortgage of $2,800 from farmer Frank Clark of Nepean, and began construction soon after. By the fall of 1928, Campbell had finished construction on 72 Smirle Avenue, and put it up for sale. The home did not sell right away, so instead, he installed tenants in the house sometime during the winter of 1928-29: streetcar operator J.P. Devine and his wife Elizabeth. The couple moved in to the fresh new home, where they stayed for less than a year.

72 Smirle Avenue (in 2009)

Meanwhile, young Ottawa couple Reginald James and Olga Nelson announced their engagement early in 1929, and were married on June 22nd, 1929. Olga was just 18 years old, Reggie 22. Their friends described them as an "ideally suited couple". The Ottawa Journal wrote a brief article on the wedding, titled "Charming Brides of Early Summer", noting that the bride "given in marriage by her grandfather, Mr. Stanley Spencer, was lovely in a gown of pale yellow cobweb lace and chiffon with a large yellow mohair hat and a shoulder bouquet of Ophelia roses and lily-of-the-valley." Following the wedding at St. Luke's Anglican Church, the reception was held at Olga's parents home at 250 Cooper Street, "the rooms being adorned attractively with peonies and sweet peas", and then "the young couple left on a motor trip to New York, returning via Niagara Falls and Hamilton. The bride wore a travelling suit of pale pink and a small white hat. She carried a grey coat." It seemed like a very happy time, for the young sweetheart couple.

Olga James, from the Citizen, taken I believe on
her wedding day.

Reggie James, also from their wedding day.

Reginald Waldo James had been born in Sackville, New Brunswick, and was the son of accountant Frederick Stanley James. Reggie was employed as an electrician with the Ottawa Electric Railway streetcar company. His bride Olga had been raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather Stanley Spencer was the well-known curator at the library of the House of Commons. Olga herself had worked for several years at John M. Garland Son & Co., a dry goods store on Queen Street, and later as a clerk in the downtown department store Bryson-Graham. Since her wedding, she had been working two days a week for Ramsay & Company, patent attorneys on Bank Street, to assist with getting their mail out. Olga's father had slowly gone blind during her childhood, and by 1930 was residing in the Ottawa Institute for the Blind on McLeod Street. Her mother resided with an aunt, but no news reports indicated why Olga had not been raised by her parents.

The wedding account noted that the couple was to reside at 375 Arlington Avenue upon their return home from their three-week honeymoon. However, just a few months later in October of 1929, the couple moved to the one-year old house at 72 Smirle Avenue, perhaps so that Reggie James could be closer to his work at the streetcar workshops at the Champagne Avenue 'barns', and also so that the couple could have a comfortable house in a quiet neighbourhood to start their family. Olga was pregnant and due with the couple's first child in September.

The morning of Tuesday, March 25th, 1930

Reginald James woke up early, prepared his own breakfast and quietly left for work at the Ottawa Electric Railway workshops between 6:30 and 6:45 a.m., leaving his wife sleeping in bed. Olga had planned to visit her in-laws that morning. Apparently it had been quite cold in Olga and Reggie's house recently, owing to their heating coal supply being low. Mrs. James had wanted Olga to spend the day at the James' house on Renfrew Avenue in the Glebe, both to escape the cold, but also to continue the project they had started the previous day; the two had spent Monday together making clothes for Olga's expected baby. But she would never make it back to her mother-in-law's on Tuesday morning.

Mrs. James began calling the house after 9 o'clock, but could not reach Olga. At first, Mrs. James believed Olga might just be still in bed, but grew increasingly concerned.

Reggie went home for lunch, as he did most days, arriving at 12:10 p.m,. When he came in the front door, he did not see Olga and had assumed she had gone out to his mother's place. He went into the kitchen and began to prepare lunch, putting on coffee and was about to start making food when the telephone rang. It was his mother. She said Olga had not come over, and she had been unable to reach her all morning, having phoned several times.

Reggie's next few seconds would be devastating. As he later reported to the papers: "Still feeling only slightly uneasy, I was under the impression that Olga had slept in, and went upstairs to see. She was in bed. My God, what a sight. She was all over blood. Her throat was terribly bruised.".

Reggie said that he hardly knew what he was doing as he rushed downstairs to call for help. He was still not certain she was dead, perhaps only unconscious. He first called his mother and told her the terrible news. Then he put in a call to Dr A.S. McElroy, and after that, called the police.

The afternoon of Tuesday, March 25th, 1930

The police arrived immediately, and began investigating the scene.

Olga was found in her nightdress with her face and neck covered with blood. She was covered up to her neck by blankets. Dr. McElroy on his arrival found that Olga had been dead for some time. and had died from strangulation.

The shocking event caused immediate sadness throughout Ottawa. A lot of it was centered on Smirle Avenue, where grieving parents and in-laws met up with a grieving husband, still overcome by the discovery.

The Journal reported: "There were heart-rending scenes in the pretty home on the west side of Smirle avenue, north of Wellington street, as relatives and friends joined the police and the spreading crowd of the curious about one o'clock. The husband, a tall, slender young man, was completely overcome by the shocking discovery he made at lunch time. As he staggered down the stairs from the death room on the upper floor he cried: "O, my God! She is dead - really dead!""

* * *

The police began putting together the clues.

In the bedroom on the floor, they found a cigar butt which had been left on the floor, as well as an unsigned note next to the bed on the dresser. The letter read: "This is your dirty work you have done on me. It may be a lesson not to treat any other man that way. You got this woman to play the most rotten game she could play on a man. Now see what you have done." The note was written in pencil on a half sheet of notepaper, the reverse side on which was an unfinished, half-written letter by Olga to her grandmother.

The police in investigating the murder scene had found beads scattered over the floor of the bedroom and bathroom, which belonged to a necklace Olga had often worn. The beads in the bathroom led police to believe that the killer had washed his hands before leaving the house. Several days after the murder, Reggie's mother found a bloodstained towel amongst the laundry she had taken home from the bathroom, apparently used by the killer during his clean-up.

It was initially believed that Donald L. Campbell, the builder of the house and Olga and Reggie's landlord may have been involved, but they were able discount him early on.

The neighbours across the street were the only ones to see the killer on the property. While having breakfast between 8:30 and 9:00, they saw a man walk along Spencer, peer in the side door and then went around to the front, mounting the verandah steps and ringing the door bell. They did not see anyone open the door, but the man went in. They thought no more of the incident and did not watch for his departure. They recognized the man, and were able to provide enough of a description to police to assist.

Meanwhile Reggie James, unable to think of anyone who would possibly harm his wife, was asked to considered any possible person who could have done this. The only person he could come up with as even a longshot possibility, was the painter who had been working in his house earlier in the month. This suspect was mentioned to D.L. Campbell, and to the neighbours across the street, and the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together a little.

* * *

Meanwhile family and friends had begun hearing the news, and the press was right there to capture their early reactions. In some cases, it was the press reporters who were breaking the news to family.

Reggie's mother Mrs. Oral James, speaking at the house moments after arriving to comfort her son, was of course shocked to learn of the tragedy "I can't imagine who would have done such a thing" she said, "She had no enemies. Everyone loved her. She was such a dear little thing. It is terrible."

At Olga's childhood home, the reporter arrived moments after Olga's grandmother had heard of what had happened. Eerily, the reporter found that she had predicted tragedy that very morning. "When my husband Stanley left for his work in the library of the House of Commons this morning I sat down for a little while to tell fortunes with a pack of fortune cards I got in New York last summer." she reported to the Journal. "The very first card that turned up was the one that reads 'Death of a dear friend'. I didn't know then how near to me that message was to come."

The Journal  had reached the grandmother before family had, and caught her in her full grief. "She was such a happy girl all the time. You know she lived with me practically all the years before she was married. I really brought her up and I feel now as if one of my own dear children had been taken from me. Oh! Who could have done this? You know she was so bright, such a child even though she was married, that I cannot think of anyone who would even think of harming hair on her head."

"Olga used to come to see me often since she was married and she had lunch with me on Friday last" said Mrs. Spencer "She was so bright and gay then and did not seem to have a care in the world. She was really happy, I know that, for she had a good husband. Nothing was too much for him to do for her. She has not been very strong, you know, and her husband would not let her do anything unnecessary around the house. He would look after it himself, and whenever there was anything to be cleaned up he would do it. They were getting such a nice home together and he had done a lot of painting and cleaning up. Oh what a terrible thing to happen."

"Every time she came here she acted just like a child," she added. "You know, people would think she was only 14 instead of 19 and married. I used to often say to her, 'You'll never grow up', and she would just laugh merrily."

* * *

The police department was acting on every clue, and once suspicion pointed to one individual in particular, three policemen and the devastated Reggie James all drove to a lunch room on Sparks Street, and then to a rooming house at 25 Stewart Street in Sandy Hill where 62-year old William Nielson was said to reside. They waited outside the home for a while, with cops covering both the front and rear doors. When someone matching Nielson's description was spotted walking along the street, the policemen asked Reggie to confirm if that was him - the man who had painted in his house earlier in March. "That's he", said James.

25 Stewart Street (as it stands in 2015), where William Nielson was
arrested, an hour after the discovery of the body of Olga James.

William Nielson was apprehended at 1:35 p.m. and placed under arrest and taken to the local police station at 1:45. Nielson initially refused to say anything, but the evidence quickly began to mount.

Nielson was found with scratches on his hands, his forehead and the top of his head. The cuffs of his white shirt and the front of his clothes were slightly spotted with blood. His coat sleeve was ripped, and indications appeared it has been ripped only a short time before his arrest. He was discovered with two yards of "window cord" in his overcoat, blood-stained, and knotted at both ends. He was also found with $160 in his pocket, having drawn all his money from the bank (potentially planning to flee Ottawa later that day).

The police questioning took only minutes to turn into a full confession.

Nielson admitted to police that when they arrived at his home that afternoon, he was already making preparations to hang himself with the same fatal cord. Police believed that if they had not arrested Nielson at 1:35, he would have taken his own life within another fifteen minutes.

The formal charge against Nielson was sworn out at 3;00, and by 3:45 p.m., Inspector of Detectives Emile Joliat had Nielson's confession. In less than four hours, the murder was solved, and Nielson was taken to the Nicholas Street jailhouse.

* * *

Back on Smirle Avenue, the tragic scene had become a mob scene. Word of the murder had begun to spread throughout town, and curious citizens arrived on the street to see what could be seen.

Reggie James was devastated. "If I could get my hands on him, I'd kill him" said the bereaved husband, with tears streaming down his face.

Unbeknownst to the many visitors to the house, Olga's pet puppy "Pat", a "pup police dog" had been locked all day in the cellar. The Journal noted that Pat, "apparently aware from the strange voices of policemen and detectives on the floor above him that something was wrong, howled mournfully until he was released from the cellar by newspaper reporters. Upon seeing his broken-down master, head bent between his knees and weeping quietly, the faithful pup lay down at his feet, whimpering."

* * *

With a press conference held around 4:00 to announce the killer's confession, and releasing his name and some biographical information, it was a race for the two local English papers to publish this wild new information in their evening editions. The Ottawa Journal had already gone to press with the story as it was known mid-afternoon, but the Citizen decided to delay production, and inserted an updated article (with a non-standard font type and size) on the front page, to provide this breaking news.

The headlines in the evening papers that day screamed out about the shocking murder in Wellington Village:

Front page of the evening edition of the Ottawa Journal, March 25, 1930

Front page of the evening edition of the Ottawa Citizen, March 25, 1930.

* * *

The background; the motive

Details on how Nielson had become involved in the lives of Olga and Reggie James began to emerge on the afternoon of the murder. Some time in February or early March, the landlord D.L. Campbell had hired Nielson to paint inside the house. He was assigned to paint three or four days a week, over a two week period. With Reggie out working at the streetcar barns every day, Nielson was alone with the young bride Olga for long periods of time. He developed an obsession with her.

At some point during this period of time, Nielson made advances to Olga, going so far as to put his arm around her. She rebuffed his overtures, and he left the house. A day or two later, Nielson mailed Olga a gift of two pairs of stockings, which she declined to accept, adding a note saying that she could not take stockings or any other gift items from a man other than her husband.

Several days later, Nielson called Olga on the phone and told her that he attempted to take the stockings back to the store where he had purchased them, but the store would not accept them. He asked Olga to return the stockings herself, and get something else in exchange. During the phone conversation, Reggie arrived home and asked his wife to whom she was talking. Olga then told her husband of the stockings and of Nielson's advances.

Reggie James treated the matter lightly, urging Olga to forgive Nielson on the grounds that he "was an old man and alone in the world." He encouraged Olga to invite Nielson to tea, which she did. Nielson visited on Sunday March 16th, spending a large chunk of the day at the James' home. It was reportedly an enjoyable afternoon, spent listening to records on the Victrola and conversing.

Since then, Nielson had not been seen by Reggie, nor had Nielson returned to the house to his knowledge.

William Nielson had been a 20-year employee for the builder and landlord of 72 Smirle Avenue, Douglas Campbell. When immediately interviewed on the afternoon of the murder, Nielson's landlord and long-time friend Oscar Petegorsky was surprised to hear the story. "How could he do it? He is so quiet. I can't believe it.", said Petegorsky. Most of Nielson's limited number of contacts shared similar sentiments.

William Nielson mug shot, taken hours after the killing.

Nielson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1868, and had come to Canada in 1907. He was a widower, and was purportedly widely known around town, from having worked on many job sites. He was also known as a recluse, rarely mixing with anyone.

* * *

At 4:00, an inquest was opened into the death of Olga James, at the funeral parlors of George H. Rogers Ltd. on Elgin Street, after the body was identified by Frederick S. James, father-in-law of the victim.

It was also reported that "around noon, a thirteen-year-old Holland avenue girl was returning from St. Mary's School for lunch, and was accosted in the vicinity of Smirle Avenue by an aged man who asked her to come with him. She told him to go on about his business. She told her brother that the man had accosted two other young girls before he spoke to her."

Tidbits of information like this helped the police sketch together a preliminary summary of Nielson's whereabouts for the day.

Nielson had arrived at 72 Smirle at 8:00 a.m., as witnessed by the neighbours across the street. He had a key in his possession that had been provided to him by D.L. Campbell weeks earlier for the painting work, and which he had never returned. Reggie James had left all the doors locked when he left that morning, and when he returned at noon, he found them all still locked. The only others with a key were Campbell and Nielson.

Nielson told police he was inside the house for half an hour. When asked why he had gone there, he answered that "he had heard dirty words spoken about him and had gone to Mrs. James to see about them." He went to the newlywed's house on Smirle "looking for a showdown".

"There was a row, then I tackled her and it was all over" said Nielson in his confession. After he was sure she was dead, he said he wrote the note which later was found on the bureau.

After the killing, Nielson said that he went across the river to Hull, to the Windsor Hotel, had three drinks to steady his nerves, and then went into the lavatory in the basement with the intention of strangling himself with the same rope. Other men however also went into the basement and Nielson said he saw that he would be disturbed and claimed he decided to return to his room on Stewart Street to end his life.

Adding more drama to an already upsetting event, Nielson posted a letter to the Ottawa Citizen early in the afternoon from Hull. Addressed to "The Editor of Ottawa Citizen", Nielson confessed to the murder, and laid the motive for his crime on the gossiping of Olga James ("Mrs. J.") and D.L. Campbell and his wife, and more bizarrely, his hatred of the Ottawa Police. The full text of his letter, as published in the Citizen, was as follows:

"Following is a statement of me, undersigned, that I have committed an awful deed this morning against a woman. From that day I entered her house, she played on me and with her language, and her acts. At last I couldn't stand it any longer and have no use for women else but she got my number. I gave her a suggestion and she just told me I was old enough to be her grandfather. After I left her house I have heard nothing else but talking that pointed back to her and D.L. Campbell. Campbell himself spoke about things I know came from her. The police of Ottawa, whom your paper is always praising, is the most rotten police force I ever knew. After I left Mrs. J's house I have on several occasions heard things that pointed back on Mrs. J. and Campbell, and walking on the street more than once I have heard remarks from some of the women that police employ to do their dirty work, remarks that pointed back to Mrs. J. I got all worked up so I completely lost control of myself. Even yesterday when working in Campbell's house I heard Mrs. Campbell speaking on the telephone about me saying "you better be careful Mrs. J. and I saw him myself on the street the other day, and Mrs James answering back something that made Mrs. Campbell laugh. When you receive this I am already going away myself but all the blame is on the dirty police in Ottawa. If I have made a mistake of this woman then God have mercy on her soul. My heart is bleeding and I am suffering with doubt about her, but the police of Ottawa, damn them, is to be blamed. Yours, Wm. Nielson."

Reggie James would defend his deceased wife's actions repeatedly through the following weeks and months with a similar statement: "He thought she was flirting with him but she wasn't. She merely was trying to be nice to him as she was to everybody. He is an old man and she knew he was alone and was sorry for him."

Wednesday March 26th, 1930

The autopsy was completed this morning, and for at least some degree of relief, it was found that Olga had not been sexually assaulted (interesting side note: in this era, newspapers would not use the term "sexually assaulted", they referred to it as "criminally assaulted"). Initially, it was assumed that she had been. The autopsy showed only that Olga had been killed by strangulation and nothing else. It also confirmed that indeed Olga was an expecting mother due in the fall.

Funeral arrangements were announced, with a private service to be held on Thursday afternoon at Reggie's parents home on Renfrew avenue, and then to Beechwood for burial. The newspaper stated that "privacy is desired by the grief-stricken husband because of the morbidly curious crowds that are wont to gather at the funerals of this nature."

Meanwhile, Nielson was formally arraigned in police court and remanded for one week. An unusually large crowd had assembled at the court house for a glimpse of Nielson. Long before the doors opened at ten there was a line-up, and only a limited number were admitted before the door was closed. Some of the individuals turned away attempted to run to the side of the building to try to gain entry via the side door, but it was under guard by the police.

The police authorities and the relatives and friends of Olga had no hesitation to speak out to the media on this sad day, and to opine that Nielson's statements to the police, and the letter he wrote to the Citizen office were the "the hallucinations of a man mentally affected". The Citizen editorialized that "the police do not think there is any basis for the claim made by Nielson that he heard things on the street that pointed to their having emanated from Mrs. James or from either Donald L. Campbell or Mrs. Campbell, both of whom were mentioned in the letter to the Citizen. Mrs. Campbell as a matter of fact, never knew Mrs. James."

Late on Wednesday evening, while sitting alone, motionless in his jail cell, brooding over the awful crime for which he assume responsibility, William Nielson was told for the first time, that his victim was an expectant mother.

Thursday March 27th, 1930

Olga's funeral was held on Thursday afternoon at her in-law's family home at 49 Renfrew Avenue. As was still common in the era, wakes and funerals were typically held at a family home. Large crowds, mostly composed of women, lined the adjacent lawns and sidewalks, and bowed their heads when the "soft-grey steel casket" was carried out of the house, and placed in the hearse to be taken to Beechwood Cemetery.

The following portion from the newspaper is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it tells of some unimaginably awful behaviour by some citizens of Ottawa. I can't even believe this would have been normal at any point at time, hardly something you can brush off as "well, it was olden days". Just absurd. And secondly, it represents just how detailed newspaper accounts of the period were. The writing, the descriptions of events, were very descriptive, often hauntingly so.

Ottawa Journal - March 27, 1930

Also on this day. William Nielson's lawyers, Arthur F. Cluffe and Jean Richard, to counteract the claims made by Nielson in his letter that Olga had in some way brought about the attack on herself, issued a statement that "In view of the apparent statements made in connection with this unfortunate affair, and in fairness to the late Mrs. Reginald James, we desire to make it clearly understood that her character is in no way questioned. From our knowledge her reputation is absolutely unblemished."

The police were at a loss to account for what they described as bitter attacks on the police in his letter. They found he had no previous police record. It was felt that as he was in fear of being apprehended for the murder, and contemplating taking his own life, he simply wrote these sections of the letter as a desperate excuse.

The Case

It generally began to be believed that the defense would attempt to go for a plea of insanity, to avoid having to face trial. Reginald James issued a statement three days after his wife's funeral, clarifying his comments regarding the sanity of the killer. "When I stated that Nielson must be crazy, I referred to the statements made by him against my wife's character. I believe he was perfectly sane when he entered the house and killed her."

On Monday March 31st, 1930, Ottawa Coroner Dr. J.E. Craig's office held an inquest in the Olga James case. This was the first time evidence would be given, and witnesses questioned. Talk of the case was popular in Ottawa, and many citizens attempted to attend, but only a limited number were allowed.

The coroner's jury took just five minutes to return a verdict of wilful murder against Nielson.

At the inquest, Reggie James stated that he believed the reason for the murder was jealousy. "I believe that jealousy had a certain amount of play in it, and maybe he took my wife wrong in some of her actions" he stated.

* * *

The story was thrust back on to the front page of the newspapers a week later when the preliminary hearing at Police Court was held on April 9th. Nielson, just as he had at the arraignment and inquest, appeared in court without emotion, saying little, and looking down without lifting his eyes. As the Citizen put it, he appeared "with the stolid mien that is typical of many of the Danish race".

At Police Court, Magistrate Charles Hopewell committed Nielson for trial on the charge of murder.

The full typewritten confession was entered into evidence at this hearing. Arousing interest was Nielson's answer when asked directly: "You were in love with that woman" and Nielson's reply was "I loved her." Here is more from the confession:

Q - How did you get into the house?
A - I had a key for the front door.
Q - Then what happened?
A - I went in and went upstairs to her bedroom. She was in bed. She asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted an explanation about what was going around behind my back. I told her there was something going around back of me, something around the house, something about me.
Q - You went into her room and she asked you what you wanted?
A - Yes. I asked her to tell the truth about what she had said about me. Something bad she had said about me. Then she lost her temper, I lost mine and this is how it happened.
Q - What did you do when you lost your temper?
A- You know what. I have nothing more to say.
Q- You have marks on your nose.
A- Yes. She scratched me.
Q - Did you have hold of her then?
A- Yes, I said all I wanted was to have a good time with her. I had hold of her at that time. She said 'You will have a good time with me but you will kill me before.' That is what she said.

It was also revealed that Nielson had come by on March 19th, a few days after the afternoon tea, and knocked on the James' door. Olga's mother was visiting, and so Nielson came up with a quick story asking to borrow a plank of wood that he needed to use in a nearby house he was working in. Olga gave him access to the basement, but he came back upstairs empty-handed and left. Olga had told Reggie that she thought he had come by "with the intention of causing her trouble", but Reggie had shrugged it off that he meant no harm.

The additional evidence had also piled up against Nielson, making what seemed to be an all-round air-tight case against him: the handwriting in the letter sent to the Ottawa Citizen was matched by an expert to the handwriting in the note left by the killer in the bedroom; Nielson was found with seven keys in his pocket upon his arrest, one of which was the key to 72 Smirle Avenue; and investigators had found a button on Olga's bed that matched other buttons on Nielson's coat - upon his arrest, his coat was missing the top button, and had loose threads in its place, an indication that it had recently been torn off.

* * *

The trial by jury in the Ontario Supreme Court was put off until October of that fall.

While awaiting trial, things got bizarre in late May, when it was revealed that Nielson was actually Emanuel Theodor Hasberg, a fugitive from justice in Denmark. RCMP authorities had sent fingerprints to Denmark to research more about his early life. Police there confirmed that Nielson had severed multiple terms in jail in Denmark for theft. In 1907 he escaped from jail there, while serving a five-year term of hard labour. and fled to Canada. Denmark police sent along a photo from 1901, which the newspapers published to compare to Nielson in 1930.

Ottawa Journal, May 21, 1930

Oddly, the Crown Attorney announced that this information would not be used against Nielson at trial. Meanwhile, the Denmark Police were anxious to hear the results of the trial. If the Ontario court were to find him not-guilty, they wanted to bring him back to face justice in Copenhagen.

On October 18th, 1930, the fall court scheduled resumed at the Nicholas Street court house, and Nielson's defense team put forward a plea of insanity, as expected. Two alienists (an old term to refer to doctors specializing in mental illness) who were Crown witnesses, and who had assessed him in August, testified to Nielson's mental condition, citing his hallucinations (one of which was that Olga James "was a police woman"), and that he was being watched everywhere he went and persecuted. Dr. Montgomery stated: "He has had the idea that the police were in league against him, and had spotters to watch him that in every place he worked, police spotters were going to those places and giving information about him. During the past few years he has had the idea that police women were on his trail. He has also had the opinion that his employer was in league with the police."

Following the alienists testimony, the jury retired for 20 minutes, and returned with a verdict that Nielson was insane and unfit to take his trial.

The newspapers stated that he would be placed in county jail to await sentencing. I could not find any further updates in the news, or in any records to update what happened to William Nielson after this date. [Edit: A helpful reader Craig Shouldice emailed me to let me know he had found a death record for William Nielson. Nielson committed suicide on July 23rd, 1933 by hanging himself, while he was a patient at a Hospital (Criminal Insane Division) in Penetanguishene, Ontario. Thanks Craig for sharing this information.]

Following the trial

Reginald James never returned to the home on Smirle Avenue. He moved in with his parents on Renfrew Avenue for the next 12 to 18 months, before eventually moving in to a room loft apartment of a house at 540 Parkdale Avenue.

Somehow, despite the huge publicity of the case, D.L. Campbell found new tenants for 72 Smirle Avenue soon after the murder. The new tenants, Carleton Pattie, a conductor for CP Railway and his wife Iona, moved in by July.

Campbell never did find a buyer for his house. He suffered tremendously from the economic depression of the 1930s, and in May of 1931, lost 72 Smirle Avenue via foreclosure to the mortgage-holder Frank Clark. Campbell lost ownership of several houses he had built during the late '20s this way, as the real estate market in Ottawa dried up completely, between the depression and eventually, World War II.

The murder house on Smirle was torn down in 2013, and replaced with an impressive, larger home on the lot at the corner of Spencer Street.

* * *

Life was not easy for Reggie James after losing his wife. Two years later, in July of 1932, James was back on the front pages of the local papers, as he left Ottawa and sent letters to both his family and the Ottawa Journal, announcing that he was taking his own life due to his depression. He wrote the two letters while on board the steamship New York of the Eastern Steamship Line, which ran a coastal passenger and freight service between Portland Maine and New York City.

The letter began: "By the time you receive this letter, I will empty my bottle of poison and be in a new world, one not as cruel as this one. I hope.", and was signed "Reginald W. James, formerly 72 Smirle avenue, Ottawa. Tomorrow, East River, New York."

In the letters, he made mention that he was tired of living. "If Nielsen was crazy I would like to know my condition. That man's face haunts me everywhere I go. He wakes me up at night, keeping me from getting any sleep. He worries me until my brain is overtaxed and weak. How can a man carry on like this? That man did the most cruel trick that I can imagine any one ever doing. Because my wife was kind to him he tried to get familiar with her. Was that a human thing for any man to do to such a small and inexperienced little girl, and then not being satisfied with her refusal to have anything to do with him he killer her in a terrible manner. Also the little baby which we both looked forward to was killed by him. Too bad he didn't do the same to me. It certainly would have saved me a lot of worry and unrest."

Reggie went on to refer to Nielsen escaping capital punishment when he was certified insane at provincial court in October of 1930. He complained that "they would not dare hang a man in Ottawa" and made reference to some recent verdicts in Ottawa. "Perhaps this letter will help to stir things up in Ottawa a bit but it is too bad that murderers are allowed to live in order that they can haunt dear relatives of their victims. Surely the next world will hold a little more for me than this one. However, I shall soon know."

Reggie's parents hoped that he wrote the letters with the intention of disappearing and going to live elsewhere. They noted that they had tried to persuade him to live with them again, but that he did not seem to be happy unless he was alone. He kept up his job with the Electric Railway, working as a line switch inspector, and there too worked alone, rarely conversing with his fellow workers since the tragedy which took his young wife from him.

His parents also noted that they were aware their son brooded over the loss of his wife, though would refuse to talk about it. He kept the bedroom suite and other furniture which had been in the home on Smirle, and always had the dresser arranged as his young wife used to do it. He had preserved all his wedding gifts as a memory.

The story was tracked through the local papers over the following week. Some optimism was felt when letters were received by local friends of Reggie's, indicating that he was seemingly cheerful, and the letters did not mention his premeditated suicide. One letter included a comment that Reggie was looking forward to a new job as a rewrite man on a New York newspaper.

These news reports dried up without any result, and until a few days ago, I had believed the story had likely ended in tragedy.

However, a little digging on the Ancestry website led me to discover that he had remarried in 1944 to a Helen Jean Hepburn Colwell of Saint John, New Brunswick, and that he would live until the age of 85, passing away in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1992. I could find no other information on Reggie James or his life. Perhaps this was no accident, as after several years of intense media scrutiny, personal torment, and the pressures of dealing with such a tremendous loss, it is likely that Reginald James was happy that he was able to get his life put back together, satisfied to have a quiet, private existence for the remainder of his life here on earth.


This morning, December 28th, 2015, I received an email from a Mrs. Sandra James, the granddaughter of Reginald James's brother Stan (who noted that Reginald also acted as grandfather to Stan's grandchildren after Stan passed away at a young age). I was happy to receive this detailed additional information on Reginald James's life, and am even more so happy to share it as an addendum to my original article above. Below are the words of Sandra James, about her "de facto grandfather" Reginald James:

The late 1920’s and early 1930’s were a terrible time in Ottawa with the depression, lack of work, and the rumbling of war. To have the diversion of a murder in a family of very good social standing was a great interest to the newspapers and a thrill to citizens. Reg was never called Reggie. His mother, Deborah Bishop James was an accomplished artist trained in Boston. Her nickname was Ora, not Oral, and that was a short form of Deborah. Reg’s middle name Waldo is named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, a favorite author of his parents.

Reg was a very proficient young man, ruggedly handsome, well read, very well liked and a very good fisherman. He was one of four sons, all college educated. His father and mother were also both college educated and came from prominent maritime families. The family had a house in the Glebe, as well as a cottage in Burritt’s Rapids.

Olga’s maiden name was the same as the man that murdered her, and it is now clear the murderer was very delusional about her. At the time, it was thought that the murderer would hang for the crime. When that did not come to pass, Reg was left with how to pick up the pieces and move on to his new life. There was no Post Traumatic Stress disorder then, and no real way for him to cope. Our family has very deep ties in the Maritimes and in New York City, and has a love of cars and motorcycles. My grandfather, Reg’s brother Stan was living in New York City at the time of the murder, finishing a business degree at Columbia University. It was only natural for Reg to be traveling to see family in the Maritimes, as well as staying with family in New York City.

In his journeys through the Maritimes and into New York State by motorcycle Reg sought redemption from what had happened, and decided to remake his life and the life of others by becoming an RCMP officer. He enlisted in Ottawa in 1935 and was trained in Regina. He served undercover during the second world war, posing as a newspaperman in St. Stephen New Brunswick close to the border of Maine.

In actual fact he was documenting U boat activity and the placement of Nazi weather stations and radio relays along the Maritime coast. Although this information is no longer classified, Reg never spoke of his actual work. He did meet Jean in St. Stephen and married her. As an RCMP officer, Reg served in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and in the National Division. He was one of the RCMP officers charged with the guarding of Igor Gouzenko, the cipher clerk who defected from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. Reg and Jean had one son, David, who was born in Ottawa.

After his retirement from the RCMP in 1955, Reg, Jean and David moved to Florida where Reg purchased and ran a motel on the ocean. His mother Deborah visited every winter, and made a point of swimming daily in the ocean.

As his brother Stan passed away in his early 50’s, Reg and Jean took on the role of grandparents to Stan’s Ottawa grandchildren, and developed and nurtured very close connections with Stan’s Ottawa family. He was a joyous man who celebrated life and served his country and his family. His son David and other family relatives have continued that legacy of giving to others, and recognizing the importance of resiliency and kindness in creating differences in people’s lives.

Reg was a man with very strong views on the importance of acknowledging and caring for family, neighbors, and friends. From the depths of an unspeakable tragedy at an early age, Reg served as the role model and patriarch to his own family, friends and grandchildren, and despite his passing in 1992 is still talked about and very much missed by all that knew him.


  1. What an excellent story! For your "first foray into crimewriting" this was great. More, please.

  2. Reg went on to a full and happy life. He retired from the R.C.MP. in 1955 and moved to Daytona Beach Florida and owned and operated a motel. He was the greatest man I ever knew as well as being my father.

  3. I wish we knew this story before we bought the house! We slept in that room for a year before we tore the house down and rebuilt! We were going to save the house and build around it but it could not be saved structurally. Now I am glad we started over... And we have a Hallow'een house (and have in every home we have lived in). this adds a new element... S&K

  4. In the 60's and 70's there was a little old Italian couple that lived there and she used to babysit me on weekends. I probably slept in that room. Kinda cool.

  5. Thanks for writing this story. I love reading about Ottawa's history and this story adds a human element about its' resident's lives.

  6. In Oct 1989 we bought a house at almost the South-west corner of Huron and Spencer. I must have walked past that house on Smirle hundreds of times on the way to the IGA and back. If I had only known….thank you for a most interesting recounting of a sad event.